Terrified and hiding in the forest, the lost boys who saw the Janjaweed

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The looted and deserted village had at least 100 huts, and it was a while before we saw the young boy, his face peeping out from a hole in the ground.

The looted and deserted village had at least 100 huts, and it was a while before we saw the young boy, his face peeping out from a hole in the ground.

After some cajoling, he came out, followed by two others. Ishmael, Ahmed and Idris, brothers aged seven, nine and 10, had got lost when their family, along with the rest of the community, fled four days ago at the news of an impending Janjaweed attack.

The boys hid in the fields while the village was picked clean and livestock driven off. It was just one of a string of such places, empty of people, on the road north-east of Nyala, the capital of south Darfur.

All have been ethnically cleansed by the Janjaweed Arab militia with the assistance, including air support, it is claimed, of the Sudanese government forces. Two Antonov warplanes flew over the area in the morning.

The Darfur conflict, which the United Nations has called the "world's worst humanitarian crisis'' has so far claimed 30,000 lives and made a million people homeless. The UN issued a statement last night condemning continuing attacks by Sudanese government helicopter gunships in the southern region. Some of the heaviest of the exodus has been in this area, with the refugees swelling the camps at Kalma, Kass and Otash.

The boys had been living on fruit, and eggs they had found in a nest of a kiljoo, a species of crane. They had watched the looting from a tree, and insisted that soldiers who arrived in trucks took part as well as Janjaweed on horseback.

"We did not want to get too close, but we saw what happened,'' said Idris. "They were taking things from the homes, and things they could not take on the horses were put on the trucks. They took the goats and the donkeys and drove the cattle through the fences, you can see they are all broken.

"Everyone wanted to move because they had heard that other places like Nirais [the biggest village in the vicinity] had been attacked and a lot of people killed. Everyone was scared.'' The boys did not know where their parents and two sisters were. But they had members of their extended family at Um Sayala, further up the road, and wanted to be taken there.

On the way we were stopped by a military patrol on three pick-up trucks. At first, Major Mohammed Aziz wanted to take Idris, the oldest brother, for questioning to their camp. When he was persuaded to change his mind, it brought angry remonstrations from an Arab militia officer who had to be physically restrained by some of the soldiers from dragging off the boy.

Asked whether he was a member of the Janjaweed, the man came out with a string of invective about zurghas, an insulting term for blacks. Major Aziz, who is African, and supposedly in charge of the patrol, looked away.

There had been "inter-tribal fighting'' in the area, he said, and the Janjaweed had taken advantage. Asked if government troops had taken part in attacks and looting, he said he was "not aware'' of any such thing.

"We want people to go back to their homes. It is no good for them to be in the camps, there will be terrible diseases there. I know they're afraid to return, but they have got to be persuaded that they will be protected." What about disarming the Janjaweed, which the Sudanese government have accepted must be done in its agreement with the United Nations? "Look, Musa Hilal [one of the Janjaweed leaders] alone has 12,000 armed men. How are we going to get them to give up their guns? That is why our leaders are trying to reform them and make them part of the government militia.''

At Um Sayala we met Karim Ali Siddiq, who had arrived from a village 20 miles further north. "They shot my brother. About eight people were killed, all men. But they separated the men from the women and the girls and then took away six of the young women and girls. It was the Janjaweed and the army, and there was a helicopter. It flew so low there was dust rising everywhere. I am taking my family to Nyala. I could stay here, because I know people, but I do not think it is safe.''

Bakr Hassan, the sheikh of the village, agreed that the situation in the area remained dangerous. He would, he said, find the whereabouts of the family of the three boys and see they are reunited.

"This village was raided as well about six weeks ago. We have been living in the forest, and most of us have left our families there while we see how safe it is," he said. "It is very difficult. I have lost all my cattle and sheep. They killed 10 of our people, and we have to look after their families.''

* The response to The Independent's Darfur appeal, which we launched in Monday's paper, has been heartwarming. In just two days, readers have pledged to give £21,492, making up more than 60 per cent of all calls to the charity Concern.